Commentary on John 11:1-44
This story in John 11 often carries the heading “Jesus Raises Lazarus,” but Jaime Clark-Soles calls it “The Confession of Martha.”1
As Gail O’Day aptly describes, “The miracle of the raising of Lazarus is the climax of John 11:1-44, but it is not its center…The conversation between Martha and Jesus is the theological heart of the story.”2
Luke (perhaps preserving a memory of the same family) pits Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet against Martha, who is busy attending to the affairs of the house. Mary, Luke tells us, has chosen the better part (Luke 10:42). John, if he is aware of this tradition, flips the script (as he is often fond of doing). Martha — taking initiative and speaking frankly — matches Luke’s description, but here it is the bold and busy Martha who becomes the exemplar. This sister musters up a confession of faith in the midst of mourning. We’ll look to her story for an example of finding hope in sadness; you might call it, “Good Grief.”
Martha goes out to meet Jesus with a complaint. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). We can picture grief, confusion, and even anger in Martha’s voice. The implicit assumptions behind Martha’s statement (also echoed by Mary in John 11:32), find voice through the mourners who meet them at the tomb: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the man who was blind have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).
The grief is palpable. Mary’s grief even keeps her at home, until Jesus calls her directly. Met by Jesus, both sisters weep, and Jesus joins them in their mourning. This is no insignificant detail. The Johannine Jesus — the Word from before time, one with the Father, ever in-control — is overcome by grief. The one who is the resurrection and the life, the one who (we can only presume) knows that he will soon call the dead man from the tomb, weeps for his beloved Lazarus. He is so moved that some in the crowd exclaim: “See how he loved him!” (John 11:35-36).
“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11:22). Even now, she says. It is in her grief that Martha exercises hopeful faith. When Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again, Martha thinks in eschatological terms and looks to a resurrection at the end. Jesus brings her focus back to the present and back to his person: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Those who believe will never die? Of course they will die. Everyone dies. Lazarus will die again (especially if the high priests have their way; John 12:10). Even Jesus will die. Jesus seems to speak in contradictory terms, but then again, such dialectical thinking is necessary for hope in the midst of grief. In fact, it is Jesus’ death in John that introduces the great paradox: victory in death; blessed salvation in accursed crucifixion; hope in the midst of grief. Jesus doesn’t promise physical life without physical death. He promises an experience of abundant life that swallows up the sting of death.
We might think of the prophet’s words: “Where is your indictment, death, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14). With images that find echoes throughout John’s Gospel, Hosea speaks of times past, when God provided food in the desert (think John 6), water in the wilderness (think John 4 and 7) — and looks to a time yet to come when Israel’s abundance will be likened to a vineyard of ripened vines, ready for the pressing of fine wine (think John 2). But as we see in Hosea, sometimes the past and the future are more hope-filled than the present.
Like Martha, we all grieve. And like Martha, we are invited to give that grief the space it deserves. Like Martha, we may wish to escape the present grief by looking far ahead or gazing back to the past. Like Martha, we are invited to find hope even in the grief. Hope even now, as Martha claims. Life even in death, as Jesus promises.
“I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). It is the presence of Jesus, the one coming into the world, that gives Martha hope in the midst of grief.
Theodicy — the confession of God’s goodness amidst experiences that make evil undeniable — is a tall order. We often cry to God with the sisters, “if only you had been here!”3 Martha encourages us to believe that God is the one who moves into the world — with all of its darkness, brokenness, and grief. Martha reminds us that even in unanswered questions and unmet requests, we are not alone.
The Gospel reminds us that God joined our human experience of loss and death. The ironic suggestion of Thomas, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16) is full of meaning. Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem is a move toward his death. Those who follow Jesus are not spared from suffering; we join him in it. However, the presence of Jesus brings a quality of life that numbs the significance of death.4 With Hosea, we can ask, “Death, where is your sting?” Even though we die; we live. Even when we grieve, we hope — for we are not alone.5
- Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life (Louisville: WJK, 2016), 71.
- Gail R. O’Day, “John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carole A Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: WJK, 2012), 521
- Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life, 79-80.
- Jo-Ann Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 182.
- See Brant, John, 182. cf. John 16:33
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of new life,
As Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, renew and restore us to new life, leaving in the grave all that prevents us from loving you fully. Amen.
God so loved the world, Robert Chilcott